WASHINGTON — From a dusty ballfield in Las Vegas with no one else around to a finely manicured mound in a major league stadium bursting with more than 43,000 screaming fans, baseball has always been a father-son game for Bryce Harper.
In perhaps his finest single moment of his young career, Harper was there taking swings against his father at the All-Star Home Run Derby.
On his final one of the night, Harper sent a ball rocketing toward the right-field seats and he raised his hands skyward in triumph.
“I think this is just another stepping stone of what we’ve done together throughout my whole life,” Harper said of that final blast, in front of his home fans at Nationals Park, that propelled him to the Derby title over the Chicago Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber.
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With his father Ron on the mound pitching to him, Harper showed a flair for the dramatic that felt like something straight out of a backyard game.
And while everyone knows this victory came in a frivolous exhibition, it nonetheless was a remarkable moment in what could be his final year as a National.
That year has come with struggles both team-wide – the favored Nats are 5 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East – and individually, as Harper has paired 23 home runs with a .214 batting average.
And so this Derby win was part emotional rescue for a slugger who has hidden behind stoicism as he navigates his final season before free agency.
“I don’t think you can overstate that,” reliever Sean Doolittle said of the pressures Harper has been facing. “I don’t know if there was a monkey on his back. But this was definitely on his calendar. He definitely came to win.”
And the relief was palpable afterward. Harper’s voice cracked on numerous occasions in his postgame press conference, seated alongside Ron.
“I’m very serious on the field. I’m a very serious player. I enjoy the game,” he said. “I want to win every single game I play. I want to help this team win on a daily basis.
“But off the field, that’s the kid in me you saw tonight.”
Schwarber set the bar high in the finals by hitting 18 homers and setting the stage for a dramatic finish.
In Schwarber’s mind, it wasn’t so dramatic: Harper was going to reel him in.
“As soon as I got done with that round, I knew he had it,” Schwarber said. “I knew he had the home crowd behind him, he’s a very prolific power hitter with a great swing. For him to come in and do that, and it starts to get close to the wire and he starts rackin’ em off one at a time, you kind of just accept your fate there.”
Sporting a star-spangled bandana and a special cherry blossom bat, the hometown hero made a grand entrance to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” as the 43,698 fans in attendance chanted, “Let’s Go Harper!”
However, he went a full 30 seconds before hitting his first home run – and was only halfway to Schwarber’s total when he called his final timeout with 80 seconds remaining.
“I just knew if we got on a little bit of a roll, he could win it,” Ron said. “I knew he could hit 20, 25 if we’d had to and would get that extra time.”
After getting some encouragement – and some toweling off — from Doolittle, Harper homered on eight consecutive swings in the final minute – with the last one, No. 18, pulling him even with Schwarber as the clock ran out.
“He flipped a switch,” Doolittle said. “You could tell he was getting tired. And he went somewhere else. It was unbelievable.”
Given an extra 30 seconds for having multiple homers topping the 440-foot mark, Harper needed only two swings to break the tie and claim the title.
As he ruminated on the triumph, Harper dedicated the win to not only his family in attendance, but also to the stadium workers and team employees he’s been around since he first reached the majors in 2012.
“I’ve been here since I was 17 years old. I’ve grown in front of these fans,” he said. “Everyone who has a job here. That’s the security guard out front. The guy that works the parking lot.
“Those are the relationships you love. Those are the things that you see everyday. Those are the things that it’s all about.”
The parlor game of guessing Harper’s destination may not be aided by his sentimental comments – is that a goodbye, or a welcome back? – but he and Nats fans both can rejoice in his triumph – and the good vibes it may engender.
“Yeah, it’s a silly competition, but at the end of the day, that could be something that really jump-starts a guy,” Doolittle said. “Everyone’s aware the way the season has gone, not just for him, but for our team. For the hometown crowd to have something to cheer about, to rally around, one of the faces of our team, our sport, was really cool.”